Swiss women went on strike en masse a few days ago to highlight the country’s poor record on gender equality, particularly gender pay gap. It was organised jointly by women trade unions, women’s rights organisations, and feminist groups. Sad indeed, that half of the population of one of the richest countries in the world is forced to fight for its right to equality on the streets of Geneva.
Gender divide in the workplace and in domestic life is said to be a matter for continuing battle in Switzerland. No wonder if we recall that Switzerland granted voting rights to women in federal elections only in February 1971 through a referendum. Previous referendum in 1959 rejected this crucial component of gender equality.
Current protests of Swiss women, nearly 30 years after huge demonstrations of women to expose gender inequality in 1991, are evidence of social resilience to changes in gender positions. Hardly 10 years ago, gender equality was added in the Swiss Constitution. Gender Equality Act was passed in Switzerland in 1995, which prohibited sex discrimination and sexual harassment at workplace. Switzerland is one of the European countries having highest proportion of women in workforce.
According to agency reports, women in Switzerland still earn 20 per cent less than men. Even between equally qualified, there is about 8 per cent pay gap between men and women. The situation is similar in almost all EU States.
It is unrealistic to hope that Indian situation would be any better. According to Monster Salary Index (MSI) released recently, women in India earn 19 per cent less than men as against 20 per cent recorded a year ago. The gap was 27 per cent in 2016. IT/ITES services showed a sharp gap of 26 per cent and the manufacturing sector, 24 per cent in favour of men. Even in healthcare and caring services associated with women notionally and generally regarded as female jobs, men are paid 21 per cent more than women. Only exceptions are banking, insurance, and financial services, where the difference comes down to about 2 per cent. Even careers in science and academic courses are subject to wage discrimination between men and women. Share of women in workforce declines in higher academic posts in all countries.
Gender gap has a direct impact on what is considered “decent work and human development”. It is lessening on the whole all over the world but not significantly to make it perceptible.
An ILO Report of 2016 has estimated that the gap was about 23 per cent with women earning 77 per cent of what men earn on average. This is termed “raw gap” that does not take into account differences in qualifications, skill level, talents, etc.
India Wage Report shows that low pay and wage inequality remain serious challenges for work atmosphere and inclusive growth. Daily wage women employees are worst affected according to Global Wage Report of the ILO 2018-19.
Women workers in India are not generally active trade unionists. Union density, meaning percentage of women members in trade unions, has always been very low particularly in agricultural sector. Consequently, their bargaining power remains low. Trade unions are generally not very keen to take up exclusively women issues. Women workforce depends on women activists, NGOs, and political parties to fight for their rights, promote their interests, and bring up issues of gender discriminations and look upon courts to enforce right to equality.
However, the informal sector is showing a more lively picture with workers’ cooperatives and self-help groups of women emerging to act also as big unions. They are interested in short-term and immediate action related to current issues in contrast to long-term ideological goals like empowerment, rights, equal development, and social security aimed by women’s groups abroad.
In our country, there is still the practice of occupational gender segregation in some sectors. It is also reflected in occupational choices individually made or socially imposed. It supports the system of gender wage gap.
Social security, which has monetary implications, is absent or lower for workers engaged in semi-skilled or low skilled jobs. The affected include bulk of women workers who are highly concentrated in less skilled occupations.
Two terms have come into use to describe sex discrimination in the workplace – “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor”. The first refers to a situation where gender pay gaps are wider at the top of the wage distribution, where a barrier is put on elevation of women after a certain level. The second, the “sticky floor” is the opposite situation, where the gap widens at the bottom of wage distribution. It refers to appointment of equally qualified men and women on the same pay scale, but women at the bottom and men somewhere above. The presence of “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor’ was confirmed in several workplaces in the US. It led to a series of legal initiatives to remedy the situation.
To tackle the problem of gender differences in pay, effective policies, firm action, and timely interventions are required. The 16th Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting set a list of policy priorities, which included policies to confront gender gap along with extreme poverty and income inequality.
The concepts of insurance and social security for women are not common in India. They are now being introduced and it is seen that women are both keen and quick to learn, and more reliable in discharging their obligations in schemes. Women are found more prompt in repaying loans.
A main reason for gender gap in the workplace is the idea that women’s income is supplementary to men’s in the family except in women-headed households. Added to it is the notion that the entire domestic work is the sphere of women from which men are exempted by being men. It follows that if any domestic duty requires leave from external work, it is the woman who has to take charge and not men. This creates an image of women workers as supplementary to men and gives them a secondary place. Studies also show that women are willing to accept lesser pay in return for less rigorous working hours and some relaxations in working conditions.
It seems, therefore, that bridging gender pay gap is a social issue and not just a labour problem. Gender gap is embedded in tradition and practice, pushing back educational qualifications, aptitude and capabilities, and democratic norms and human rights. It is not possible to change our cultural ideas overnight in pursuit of mechanical parity. That will also adversely affect women workforce. We have to introduce practices of sharing family responsibilities where it is lacking.
The fight is to be against unjustified sex discriminations in workplaces and domestic set up, notions of male and female jobs without any reason, and fixation of pay on gender basis for equal work.
Our mindset regarding the status of women needs total change. Pay parity is possible only between equals – people equally available and equally fit for equal work. Society must agree to remove all obstacles in the way of women, imposed under patriarchal ideas and hidden under the garb of cultural values. —INFA